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When is a Canadian Not a Canadian?


There is a concept that I have commented upon time and again which, it seems, has caused some confusion among visitors to this site. That is, the distinction between where a movie is set and where it is filmed, and the distinction between a character and the actor who portrays that character.

I have received some e-mails and read some entries left on the Guestbook that indicates people are not clear about the distinction.

An enormous percentage of Canadian TV shows and movies pretend they are set in the United States. I've commented on how potentially damaging this can be to a people and a culture, to not be able to see yourselves when you flip on the TV. It suggests you are invisible and your values and culture are wrong. Is it a big deal? Obviously not to the thousands of Canadian film professionals who every day happily perpetuate this cultural discrimination against their own country. But imagine how, say, an American would feel if everytime he or she turned on the TV, all their shows and movies, from Friends to CSI, from Spider-Man to American Beauty, were set in, say, Japan, dealing with Japanese issues and situations (American Beauty could be renamed Japanese Cherry Blossom). And not that these were Japanese productions, but American productions pretending they were Japanese. A few such instances would be fine (even healthy), but not when it accounts for maybe 60 percent of your movies and TV shows. I don't think the American public, nor American editorialists, would let such a trend pass unremarked upon. But that's very much the situation in Canada.

I've commented on this from time to time, sometimes wryly, sometimes bitterly, sometimes simply as a statement of fact devoid of any agenda. Yet, from time to time I have received friendly letters from people "correcting" my misapprehension, pointing out that lots and lots of productions are filmed in Canada with Canadian actors and that I was wrong in my assertion that they weren't.

So I'll say it again: there is where a movie is filmed as a production, and where it is set as a story.

In the movie Star Wars, some of the action was set on a distant planet called Tatooine...but it was filmed in Africa. See the difference? If you watch Star Wars and assume the action takes place in Africa, then the entire narrative of the movie falls apart. We are expected to accept the narrative's assertion that the story takes place on the planet Tatooine...even though we know, in our heart, that it was really filmed in Africa. Another example: the excellent American movie "Roxanne" was filmed in a small town in British Columbia, and even used the name of that town in the movie, leading some commentators to claim it was set in Canada...but it wasn't. Throughout the movie American flags are liberally positioned in scenes and the characters make references clearly indicating they are in the United States of America. I have no problem with that: why shouldn't an American movie be set in America? But that's the point: it was set in America, not Canada, even though it was filmed in Canada and even used the name of a Canadian town.

And there is a distinction between an actor and the character he portrays. William Shatner was born in Montreal, Canada, but Captain Kirk, the role that made him famous in the American TV series Star Trek, was born in the United States of America -- Iowa, to be precise. Captain Kirk is not Canadian even though the actor who brought him to life and portrayed him off and on for almost three decades is.

There is a distinction between the behind-the-scenes aspects of a production (location, cast) and the on-screen story (setting, characters). If a movie has American flags in it, or if you see blue American mail boxes on the streets, it is set in the United States. Period. If a character in a movie refers to the city in which the movie takes place as being, say, New York, then that movie is set in New York...even if you happen to glimpse Toronto's distinctive "Sam the Record Man" store in a shot. It doesn't matter whether you, as the viewer, know it was filmed in Canada, what matters is the intent of the narrative. And even if you know -- even if you happen to recognize a particular landmark -- 90 percent of the audience won't.

I don't think I can express it any clearer. If one wants to debate whether it's important to have movies and TV series set in Canada with Canadian characters, fine. Debate is good. But let's make sure we're all working with the same definitions and terms.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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